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Disciplinary Bubbles
Here’s another blog post that’s long overdue. There seems to be a
surge of interest in the topic lately, so I thought I’d write up my
longstanding thoughts.
The academy is often thought of as the ideal for developing knowledge:
select the brightest minds in the country, guarantee them jobs, allow
them all the resources they need to research anything, don’t interfere
with any of their conclusions. On some issues, these
independent-minded academics form a consensus and we tend to give
their consensus very heavy weight. They can’t all be wrong, can they?
And yet, in my empirical research, I find they very often are. A short
blog post is no place to do a careful study, but I can mention some
examples. The classic works in industrial relations turn out to be
complete hoaxes, yet they’ve dominated the teach of the field for over
half a century. (SeeAlex Carey’s bookfor details.) In political
science, the most respected practioner’s most famous work shades and
distorts his own findings to support a theory wildly at odds with the
facts. (SeeWho Really Rules?) The whole field of fMRI studies are so flat-out
ridiculous that journal articles are evenmaking jokes about them.  And, maybe most blatantly today, economics was dominated by a
paradigm that believed substantive unemployment was impossible, despite
that notion having been famously and thoroughly debunked by Keynes and, of course,
How is this possible? I think the key, as in most institutional
studies, is that of the filter. To become a professor of X, one must
first spend several years receiving an undergraduate major in X, then
several more years going to graduate school in X, then perhaps work as
a postdoc or adjunct for a bit, before getting a tenure-track position
and working like mad to make enough of a dent in the field of X to be
seen as deserving of a prominent permanent position. When your time is
called, a panel of existing professors of X passes judgment on your
work to decide if it passes muster. Can you imagine a better procedure
for forcing impressionable young minds to believe crazy things?
And so this process forms what I call disciplinary bubbles. Take the
case of industrial relations for a moment. The field was largely
created by the Rockefellers, who wanted research into how they could
get rid of their unions. They paid lavishly and, not surprisingly,
found people who told them what they wanted to hear: that treating
workers nicely made unions unnecessary and companies more efficient.
The studies were completely bogus but the people who conducted them
were hailed as heroes, and provided with lavish funding to continue
their research. The funding started new departments which trained new
proteges, each of whom was taught that the founding studies as
gospel. They were told to work on expanding and refining the results,
not results, not questioning then, and so they did, becoming
industrial relations professors in their own right and continuing the
Like other bubbles, disciplinary bubbles are difficult to pop. Imagine
you do research outside their incorrect assumptions. Your research
will simply be marginalized and ignored — you don’t get into the
conferences or the journals, it’s just not seen as valid work. And
even if you try to disprove the bogus assumptions, you get ignored.
Everyone already in the field has built their careers on those
assumptions. They’ve long rationalized them to themselves; nobody is
going to support someone who argues their life’s work is built on
Thus ignorance marches on.
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October 20, 2009